Fiber Reinforced Thermoplastics in Aerospace Manufacturing

Airplane is flying above the clouds at sunset in summer. Landscape with passenger airplane, mountains, orange sky. Aircraft is taking off. Business travel. Commercial plane. Aerial view. Transport. An example of fiber-reinforced thermoplastics in aerospace

Aerospace manufacturers have relied on composites for decades to make high-performing, lightweight, and fuel-efficient aircraft. As major aerospace manufacturers build their next generation of aircraft, the benefits of fiber-reinforced thermoplastics will make the composite material an obvious choice for manufacturing larger composite structures.

Fiber-reinforced thermoplastics (FRT) consist of a thermoplastic matrix reinforced with carbon or glass fibers. Thermoplastics have proven a valuable component in aerospace composites manufacturing with advantageous attributes such as their inherent recyclability and supply chain ease.

Manufacturing thermoplastics is a relatively simple process: the material is heated to a melt temperature where it can be formed into the desired shape, then cooled to create the finished part. Its recyclability compared to other materials is inherent and uncomplicated; once the melt temperature is reached, the resin is easily separated from the fiber and both materials can be reused. This will be key as production demand and volume grow and the industry stays focused on sustainability.

Further, thermoplastics eliminate the shelf life and storage temperature limitations that exist with traditional materials, as well as the logistics and costs that come with it. Thermoplastics can be stored at room temperature without changing the properties and without the concern of premature curing, increasing its ease of use in the supply chain system and manufacturing cycle.

As leading aerospace manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus look to evolve the technology that has been used in composite aircraft structures for decades, new aircraft programs may emerge to replace the 737 and the A350, respectively.

Fiber-reinforced thermoplastics in aerospace grow along with the aircraft structures they create

Composites One is ready to provide the materials and process expertise that Boeing, Airbus, and other aerospace OEMs need to take full advantage of fiber-reinforced thermoplastics in composites processing. The high strength-to-weight ratio of FRTs makes them ideal for use in components that need to be both strong and lightweight, such as aircraft panels, structural parts, engine components, and increasingly for larger composite structures. Fiber-reinforced thermoplastics can be formed into complex shapes using various manufacturing methods. In next-generation aircraft, it will become ideal to produce very large structures of composites, such as thermoplastic composite wing structures that could be up to 30 feet wide.

Traditional manufacturing methods such as hand layup thermoset prepregs can support production levels below 1,000 aircraft units; however, for commercial viability above 1,000 units, using fiber-reinforced thermoplastics will help manufacturers meet the rate requirement. With the growth in composites manufacturing volume, quality, and cost requirements for next-generation aircraft will come heavy financial investment in the aerospace market—and major increased production rates that cannot be supported with traditional systems.

Increased production demand increases the need for sustainability solutions

Sustainability is a major advantage of fiber-reinforced thermoplastics with their natural recyclability. The recycling segment is very active in the composites industry and there is interest in carbon fiber for its high residual value, even post-recycling. As the technology grows to help recyclability evolve, the industry will focus on applying recycled carbon fiber into new structures.

There is plenty of research and development and material qualification that still needs to take place to develop next-generation aircrafts that take full advantage of all that thermoplastic composites have to offer. The Netherlands has invested heavily in fiber-reinforced plastic through the Thermoplastic Composites Research Center (TPRC), a hub for development on reliable bonding, welding techniques, and other related processing methods. Similar work has been evolving at the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) in Wichita, KS, where the investment in research and development around thermoplastics at NIAR’s Advanced Technologies Lab for Aerospace Systems (ATLAS) will help spur growth around this technology for aerospace applications.

The use of FRTs in aerospace manufacturing is driving innovation and improving the performance, weight, and fuel efficiency of aircraft. Globally, Composites One is the leading resource for manufacturing customers in Aerospace and other industries to help apply new composites technology and applications to stay competitive in their market segments.

At Composites One, we strive to be innovative and dependable and to deliver results for our customers. Our Advanced Composites Team offers expert knowledge of composites materials as the leaders in providing materials management and logistics solutions for demanding markets. In Aerospace, Marine, Wind Energy, and beyond, our industry-leading distribution model and Technical Team are ready to support manufacturers that are using composites to design the innovations of tomorrow.